This conflict, which redrew the religious and political map of central Europe, began in the Holy Roman Empire, a vast complex of some one thousand separate, semiautonomous political units under the loose suzerainty of the Austrian Hapsburgs. Over the previous two centuries, a balance of power had emerged among the leading states, but during the sixteenth century, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation had divided Germany into hostile Protestant and Catholic camps, each prepared to seek foreign support to guarantee its integrity if need arose.
Thus in 1618, when Ferdinand II, heir apparent to the throne of Bohemia, began to curtail certain religious privileges enjoyed by his subjects there, they immediately appealed for aid to the Protestants in the rest of the empire and to the leading foreign Protestant states: Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Denmark. Ferdinand, in turn, called upon the German Catholics (led by Bavaria), Spain, and the papacy. In the ensuing struggle, Ferdinand (elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1619) and his allies won a major victory at White Mountain (1620) outside Prague that allowed the extirpation of Protestantism in most of the Hapsburg lands. Encouraged by this success, Ferdinand turned in 1621 against Bohemia’s Protestant supporters in Germany. Despite aid from Britain, Denmark, and the Dutch Republic, they too lost, and by 1629 imperial armies commanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein overran most of Protestant Germany and much of Denmark. Ferdinand then issued the Edict of Restitution, reclaiming lands in the empire belonging to the Catholic Church that had been acquired and secularized by Protestant rulers.
Only Swedish military aid saved the Protestant cause. In 1630 an army led by King Gustavus Adolphus landed in Germany and, with a subsidy from the French government and assistance from many German Protestant states, routed the Imperialists at Breitenfeld (1631) and drove them from much of Germany. The Protestant revival continued until in 1634 a Spanish army intervened and at Nordlingen defeated the main Swedish field army and forced the Protestants out of southern Germany. This new Hapsburg success, however, provoked France-which feared encirclement-to declare war first on Spain (1635) and then on the emperor (1636).
The war, which in the 1620s had been fought principally by German states with foreign assistance, now became a struggle among the great powers (Sweden, France, Spain, and Austria) fought largely on German soil, and for twelve more years armies maneuvered while garrisons-over five hundred in all-carried out a “dirty war” designed both to support themselves and to destroy anything of possible use to the enemy. Atrocities (such as those recorded in the novel Simplicissimus by Hans von Grimmelshausen) abounded as troops struggled to locate and appropriate resources. Eventually, France’s victory over the Spaniards at Rocroi (1643) and Sweden’s defeat of the Imperialists at Jankau (1645) forced the Hapsburgs to make concessions that led, in 1648, to the Peace of Westphalia, which settled most of the outstanding issues.
The cost, however, had proved enormous. Perhaps 20 percent of Germany’s total population perished during the war, with losses of up to 50 percent along a corridor running from Pomerania in the Baltic to the Black Forest. Villages suffered worse than towns, but many towns and cities also saw their populations, manufacture, and trade decline substantially. It constituted the worst catastrophe to afflict Germany until World War II. On the other hand, the conflict helped to end the age of religious wars. Although religious issues retained political importance after 1648 (for instance, in creating an alliance in the 1680s against Louis XIV), they no longer dominated international alignments. Those German princes, mostly Calvinists, who fought against Ferdinand II in the 1620s were strongly influenced by confessional considerations, and as long as they dominated the anti-Hapsburg cause, so too did the issue of religion. But because they failed to secure a lasting settlement, the task of defending the “Protestant cause” gradually fell into the hands of Lutherans, who proved willing to ally (if necessary) with Catholic France and Orthodox Russia in order to create a coalition capable of defeating the Hapsburgs. After 1630 the role of religion in European politics receded. This was, perhaps, the greatest achievement of the Thirty Years’ War, for it thus eliminated a major destabilizing influence in European politics, which had both undermined the internal cohesion of many states and overturned the diplomatic balance of power created during the Renaissance.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
How good a mother is Mother Courage? How courageous is she?
This question asks you to consider what counts as a "good mother" and what counts as "courage"--both as presented in the play and as what seems true to you. In thinking about Courage in these terms, consider her attitude towards her children when there is a conflict of interest with her business.
"All good Catholics here" (Chaplain, Scene 3). What is the role of religion within the religious war in which the play is set?
The quotation is a clue that the Chaplain is the key character to analyze in answering this question. One good answer would attempt a character study of him before relating it outward to the bigger pictures of the war and the play.
Explore Brecht's presentation of Kattrin, commenting particularly on the significance of her being dumb (mute).
Writing about Kattrin can be difficult in that she speaks no lines. Consider, though, moments where Brecht gives her specific gestures in the stage directions, and analyze her growing role in the play, particularly her final scene. Consider also what other characters say about her and whether we should believe what they say, and how others react to her character.
Is Mother Courage and Her Children a tragedy?
Remember to define tragedy before relating that definition to the play. See the section on Major Themes for help.
Using your knowledge of Brecht's "epic theater," comment on the songs and their role within the play.
There are twelve songs in the play, so choose the ones that are most relevant to your thesis. See the glossary for key terms, and consider the songs' effects on the audience with respect to both thought and emotion.
Brecht claimed that his first intention was to force his audience to critically analyze his characters and their decisions--the audience's emotional involvement was not nearly as important. Does this play achieve that goal?
Consider your own emotional response to the play, particularly in your first experience of it. For most readers the response will be based around the final two scenes. Decide whether or not it is possible to critically analyze them while watching the scenes or thinking about them using one's memory. Good answers might consider the possibility that different productions of the play can have different levels of success.
Write a character study of the Cook, commenting on the way he ties into the theme of "feeding the war."
See the other sections of this ClassicNote for pointers about the Cook and this theme. Note who the Cook spends his time with, what he says, and what characters expect him to be and do.
Do you agree with critics who argue that Brecht's scene headings and placards give too much away, making each scene predictable or boring?
Here, it will help to relate your knowledge of Brecht's theater choices and practices to your own view of how the play can work as a whole. What happens in some of the scenes that cannot be captured in the headings and notes? Also see the section on Brecht and Epic Theater.
Brecht wrote, "Yvette Pottier is the only character in the play who strikes it rich; she has sold herself for a good price." Examine Yvette's character in light of this assertion.
Yvette is the most interesting character to analyze in examining the theme of class, so a good answer might include some discussion of class. Consider too how Yvette, like Courage, sacrifices her emotional needs for financial ones. And what do you make of the idea of selling oneself? Is that ever morally acceptable?
Brecht wrote, "I am curious to know how many of those who see Mother Courage and Her Children today understand its warning" (Brecht "Theaterarbeit," 1952). What do you understand to be the play's warning?
See the additional content on "Brecht's Intention" for an analysis of what Brecht thought the answer to this question was. Does this warning make sense in light of your own reading of the play? Consider how far the play is still relevant in your time and place.
Brecht called his play a "Chronicle of the Thirty Years' War." How far does the title "Chronicle" fit the play and the playwright's intentions?
(Look up "Chronicle" in a dictionary if necessary.) This question relates to the play as a whole and how it might affect an audience. Consider what a chronicle or another kind of history is supposed to achieve. Is that what Brecht achieves?
Relate Brecht's play to the "dark times" in which it was written. How far do you find Brecht's setting of the Thirty Years' War relevant to the times in which he lived?
This question asks for knowledge of the two contexts of Brecht's play: the time when it was written, and the time when it was set. These contexts then have to be related to each other. There is a small amount of information about both on this site, but the key is to consider which lessons Brecht thought he learned from the Thirty Years' War as portrayed in the play, and then to learn enough history to assess whether those lessons actually can be drawn reasonably from both the Thirty Years' War and from Brecht's own time.